Emergence of thermodynamic restriction and its implications for full-scale reverse osmosis processes

Lianfa Song, J. Y. Hu, S. L. Ong, W. J. Ng, Menachem Elimelech, Mark Wilf

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

54 Scopus citations


The production rate of permeate in a reverse osmosis (RO) process controlled by mass transfer is proportional to the net driving pressure and the total membrane surface area. This linear relationship may not be the only mechanism controlling the performance of a full-scale membrane process (typically a pressure vessel holding six 1-m-long modules in series) which utilizes highly permeable membranes. The mechanisms that control the performance of an RO process under various conditions were carefully examined in this study. It was demonstrated that thermodynamic equilibrium can impose a strong restriction on the performance of a full-scale RO process under certain circumstances. This thermodynamic restriction arises from the significant increase in osmotic pressure downstream of an RO membrane channel due to the accumulation of rejected salt within the RO channel as a result of permeate water production. Concentration polarization is shown to have a weaker influence on the full-scale RO process performance than the thermodynamic restriction. The behavior of the process under thermodynamic restriction is quite different from the corresponding behavior that is controlled by mass transfer. The transition pressure for an RO process to shift from a mass transfer controlled regime to a thermodynamically restricted regime was determined by the basic parameters of the full-scale RO process.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)213-228
Number of pages16
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 10 2003


  • Full-scale RO
  • Mass transfer
  • RO process design
  • RO process design performance
  • Reverse osmosis
  • Theory
  • Thermodynamic restriction


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